The latest blog in our On Writing series looks at Historical Setting with bestselling author Margaret Dickinson. Today marks the publication of The Poppy Girls, the 25th novel from the Queen of Saga. 25 novels? Most writers struggle to finish one! Huge congratulations to Margaret and thank you for taking the time to share your incredible author wisdom with us.
When I found Darley Anderson in 1991, it was he who suggested that I should try to write a regional saga and he gave me three very useful pieces of advice, which I still do my best to follow with every book I write.
- A strong woman as the central character, whom the reader can visualise from the first page
- The story should ‘breathe’ the place you’re writing about; your readers must feel that they’re walking down the same streets that your characters are walking down.
- A satisfactory ending so that the reader closes the last page and says, ‘yes, that’s a good ending to that story.’
And that’s all there is to it, really… Well, not quite!
Regional sagas are traditionally set during the first half of the twentieth century, though I did once go back to the 1850s with Pauper’s Gold so that the background of the pauper apprentice system in the cotton mills was historically correct. Sagas, too, are usually spread over several years, so consequently the author is always running into one war or another! However, that can be a very useful way of getting rid of an unwanted character! And also, there is ready-made conflict in a war situation. For example in The Clippie Girls, set in Sheffield, I already had the tension of the Second World War; the rationing, the bombing, the blackout, women doing men’s work and the constant fear for the soldiers fighting overseas. But I wanted more conflict so I invented a household of women; the grandmother, who owns the house and never lets anyone forget it, her widowed daughter and three granddaughters, all with very different personalities. Once the time, the setting and the characters are all in place, then the story begins to flow.
There is no right or wrong way to write a novel, but this way works for me. Before I write anything down, even notes, I have my central character and probably one or two more around her. Then I know when the story takes place, where it’s set and the background; i.e. farming, fishing, tulip-growing, lace-making and so on. I know how it is going to start and I already know how it will end and I also have a vague idea what will happen through the story, though this may change as the plot develops. At this stage I don’t do detailed research. I may make a preliminary visit to places and talk to a few people to make sure that when I do want to do in-depth research I know where to find it. I also collect numerous books on the subject in readiness.
Then I write the story, going straight through a first draft to the end without pausing to edit or to refine. This works for me to keep the pace going, though I do make ‘notes to self’ throughout reminding me where more details need to be filled in during the research stage. (By the way, editors always talk about ‘pace’!) At the end of a very rough draft that is fit for no one but me to see, I then go back to the beginning and work steadily through the script, doing detailed research and filling in the blanks. At this stage I will visit museums and speak to experts as well as reading non-fiction books on the subject and researching on the Internet. Newspapers of the time are a great resource, giving not only the news of the time but also an insight into people’s lives from advertisements as well as articles.
Another read-through of the script will concentrate on the characterisation asking myself questions such as, are all my characters fully rounded so that the reader will believe in them as real people? Have I got enough emotion into the story? Is the plot line credible? Everything that happens must have sound reasoning behind it; editors do not like plots that hang on coincidence or chance!
I believe it is important to get the facts right, especially if you are writing about a real occupation. For example, if you are writing about a mining community, they have always been very special people and not to represent their lives accurately could be insulting to them. Even though it is fiction and all my characters bear no resemblance to real people, I like to think I am paying tribute to the kind of people I am writing about. And, of course, it’s vital to get historical facts right. Your readers are intelligent, well-educated people, who will soon spot a glaring error and lose faith in your accuracy and therefore probably in your novel too.
As regards the amount of research needed, this will vary with each book and it’s quite a difficult decision to know how much to include. You want to give a realistic and accurate background and yet not overload the reader with facts that detract from the plotline. I have heard readers say that if they come to a page of description, they skip reading it! What I try to do is weave in descriptions and facts amongst conversation and action. That way, the reader will absorb it without really being aware they are doing so.
But the most important thing to get right is to create a ‘page-turner’ that will keep your readers wanting to know more about your characters and what happens to them until the very last page!
Margaret’s new novel The Poppy Girls is published by Pan Macmillan today, get it here.